16 Macabre Cultural Festivals in History that Make Halloween Look Like Child’s Play

16 Macabre Cultural Festivals in History that Make Halloween Look Like Child’s Play

Trista - October 25, 2018

Halloween is indeed an iconic holiday, instantly conjuring spooky visions of jack-o-lanterns, black cats, witches in flight and all of the other festive trappings of the holiday. What many Americans might not know is that numerous countries have their own macabre holidays in which the veil between the living and dead are drawn thin, and scary apparitions are likely to make an appearance. Some of these festivals, like Samhain, predate Halloween and even lent inspiration and imagery to our holiday. Others, like the Filipino All Saint’s Day, blend American Halloween into pre-existing traditional folklore due to long-term American military occupation.

16 Macabre Cultural Festivals in History that Make Halloween Look Like Child’s Play
A woman lighting incense as part of a Día de Muertos celebration. Wikimedia.

1. Mexico – Día de Muertos

The best known macabre festival outside of the United States, to Americans, is likely Mexico’s Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead. English speakers often refer to it as Día de Los Muertos, although this is an incorrect back-translation that adds an unnecessary article. The holiday initially was celebrated in the summer, but gradually moved to coincide with the period of Halloween and All Saint’s Day after Spanish colonization.

Día de Muertos is an amalgam of indigenous Mesoamerican traditions and Christian beliefs from the period of Spanish colonization. The original festival was believed to be dedicated to a goddess of the dead that was shared between Mesoamerican cultures. The modern practices attached to the holiday were not fully developed until the 20th century when it became standard practice to honor dead loved ones during the holiday.

Currently, the festival is celebrated over a three day period from October 31st to November 2nd. There is a wide variation in rituals from region to region and sometimes even from town to town. Some common elements include skull imagery, both in masks and shapes of food. Sugar or chocolate skulls are common gifts given to both the living and the dead, with beautiful altars called ofrendas built for the dead.

16 Macabre Cultural Festivals in History that Make Halloween Look Like Child’s Play
A photograph of Samhain festivities. Historic Mysteries.

2. Scotland and Ireland – Samhain

Samhain, pronounced SOW-win, is the progenitor of many of the United State’s Halloween customs. Samhain is an ancient Gaelic pagan festival with elements that persisted through time to modern Ireland. Samhain was celebrated from October 31st through November 1st and marked the end of harvest and beginning of winter. The period of massive immigration from Ireland due to the potato blight famine brought a wealth of Irish customs to the United States, including elements of Samhain.

Recognizable elements of modern Halloween owing their lineage to Samhain include jack-o’-lanterns and the concept of mischief night. Traditionally, lanterns were made from turnips, as pumpkins are a New World food, but they had the same face-like appearance as modern pumpkin jack-o’-lanterns. Playing pranks as part of the festivities dates back as far as the 16th century and included the wearing of costumes, though this element did not spread until closer to the 20th century.

Wiccan and neopagan practitioners have revived many of the traditional elements of Samhain into their religious practices. These include the lighting of bonfires and fortune telling during the window of the thinness between this life and the next. Like many of the macabre festivals around the world, Wiccans focus on the Samhain sabbath as a time to honor the dead.

16 Macabre Cultural Festivals in History that Make Halloween Look Like Child’s Play
A photograph of participants at the Banks of the Foyle. Charles McQuillan/Getty.

3. Northern Ireland – Banks of the Foyle

It is perhaps unsurprising, given Ireland’s historic role in the creation of what we now know as Halloween through the festival of Samhain, that the Irish have rich Halloween celebrations. In particular, the Irish celebrate Halloween with a massive festival along the banks of the River Foyle in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. The festival is Europe’s largest Halloween celebration. The roots of Samhain can be found in the Irish name for the festival, Féile na Samhna.

While Ireland has celebrated Halloween and it’s progenitor, Samhain, for centuries, the Derry festival on the river Foyle has only been at its peak since the 1980s. The festival offers many Halloween spectacles include a grand parade and an interactive haunted house. It is believed to the be the oldest and longest running European Halloween festival in addition to the largest. Over 30,000 people participate in the ghoulish festivities every year.

The festival pays homage to the roots of Samhain with cultural events, including music, art, and lectures, that educate the public about the historic festival and its impact on modern Halloween celebrations. More modern delights include film screenings of spooky shows such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Ghostbusters, treasure hunts, zombie runs, and more.

16 Macabre Cultural Festivals in History that Make Halloween Look Like Child’s Play
A photograph of a carved pumpkin. Wikimedia.

4. Italy – Tutti i Morti

In Italy, All Saint’s Day is known as Tutti i Morti which translates literally to “all the dead.” Italy, long the home of Christendom and seat of Catholicism’s power, has not celebrated Halloween until just the last several decades. Instead, they celebrate All Saint’s Day. Many of the customs of All Saint’s Day or Tutti i Morti more closely resemble the American traditions of Memorial Day than Halloween.

Cemeteries are busy places in Italy in the week leading up to All Saint’s Day, with visitors cleaning graves, planting flowers, leaving wreathes and generally showing reverence and care for deceased loved ones. Italians typically attend mass on November 1st followed by formally visiting cemeteries to pay their respects to the dead.

The Italian Tutti i Morti only resembles American Halloween in one regard: the carving of Jack-o’-Lanterns. In Italian, specifically in Sardinia, they carve pumpkins with faces that are referred to as Concas de Mortu which literally translates to “heads of the dead.” Due to the strong influence of Catholicism on Italy’s history and traditions, there is no emphasis placed on the thinning of the veil between the dead and living, as there is no Christian dogma which would support such an event.

16 Macabre Cultural Festivals in History that Make Halloween Look Like Child’s Play
A photograph of a child trick or treating. Wikimedia.

5. The United States (regional) – Beggars’ Night

While all Americans are doubtlessly aware of Halloween and trick-or-treating, those living outside the Midwest region may not be aware of the unique history of Beggars’ Night. In the 1930s, Des Moines, Iowa had a serious problem with teenage vandalism. Teenagers would run amok on Halloween soaping or breaking windows, throwing bricks, and lighting fires. This chaos peaked in 1938 when over 500 calls were placed to the Des Moines police department regarding vandalism. The community had to act. The city council created a “beggars’ night” on October 30th to encourage children to trade “mischief” in the form of jokes for candy.

Beggars’ Night officially debuted in Des Moines in 1941. The idea gained national traction the next and Beggars’ Night began to spread throughout the Midwest as a way to keep children safer and curb teenaged mischief. The idea continues to be popular in the Midwest and Iowa especially, with many towns arbitrarily setting a date for beggars’ night in the week leading to Halloween.

As concerns for safety continue, some towns are turning to “trunk or treat” as an alternative to letting children wander around masked on busy roads. In small midwestern cities, churches are often used as a staging location with numerous adults parking cars with decorated trunks for children to visit for candy. In an homage to the original Beggars’ Night, some Des Moines homeowners still ask for a joke or mild insult in exchange for candy.

16 Macabre Cultural Festivals in History that Make Halloween Look Like Child’s Play
A photograph of Zaduski offerings. Wikimedia.

6. Poland – Zaduski

Much like Tutti i Morti in Italy, Zaduski, which is Polish for All Saint’s Day, is more of a religious holiday than a festival or celebration. The name of the holiday originates from the phrase Dzień Zaduszny, which roughly translates to “the day of prayers for the souls.” The holiday blends Polish folk customs with the Christian traditions of All Saint’s Day that were introduced to Poland centuries ago by missionary monks.

The Polish observance of All Saint’s Day mirrors the Italian tradition of caring for cemeteries as part of honoring the dead. However, Polish folk tradition expanded the holiday and included non-Christian dogmatic elements of belief that the dead visit the homes of the living looking for warmth and sustenance. Several customs persist that pay homage to the idea fo the visiting dead, including traditional offerings of bread.

Women in Poland would traditionally bake special bread that would be either given to poor or even left on individual graves in a reversal of trick-or-treating. In earlier times, many taboos were followed during the days of Zaduski observance including going to bed early so as not to interrupt the nighttime travels of the dead. Care was even taken not to drop night soil out the windows without first giving a warning so as not to offend the dead.

16 Macabre Cultural Festivals in History that Make Halloween Look Like Child’s Play
A Pchum Ben celebration. American Pacific International School.

7. Cambodia – Pchum Ben

Pchum Ben is a fifteen-day long holiday in Cambodia that pays respect to ancestors. The Khmer name of the holiday translates to “Ancestor’s Day.” The dates of the observance shift somewhat each year, but the festival typically ends in early October. Practitioners pay respects to ancestors as far as seven generations back through food offerings and other rituals including throwing rice into open fields in the belief it will transfer from the living to the dead.

Unlike many of the holidays that share either religious or historical roots with other similar festivals, Pchum Ben is considered unique to Cambodia. While certain elements are shared with festivals in Sri Lanka or Taiwan, the overall holiday is unique. One particularly exciting custom is the chanting undertaken by monks on the night before the final day of the festival.

On the penultimate night of the festival, monks take up a chant that lasts through the night. The monks do not sleep; they keep up the chanting from dawn until dusk. This chanting is believed to signify the opening of the gates of hell. The opening of the gates is an occurrence that happens only once a year and is linked to the activity of the Hindu deity of death Yamaraja.

16 Macabre Cultural Festivals in History that Make Halloween Look Like Child’s Play
A Walpurgis Night gathering featuring fires. Wikimedia.

8. Europe – Walpurgis Night

The activities of Walpurgis Night, known in German as Sankt Walpurgisnacht or “Saint Walpurgis Night” were undertaken to drive misfortune and witchcraft away from communities. Saint Walpurga was a medieval French abbess who was sainted after her bones reportedly began to exude a miraculous oil that healed grave wounds and sickness. This discovery led to her being hailed as a saint who could drive away pestilence, rabies, and other diseases in addition to witchcraft, which was often viewed as a source of illness at the time.

While Walpurga’s saint day is in February, Walpurgis Night is celebrated on the eve of May Day throughout Germanic Europe due to the date of her canonization and the movement of her bones to their final resting place. What makes Walpurgis Night eerie is the practice of lighting massive bonfires to drive away witches.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the belief spread that witches gathered on the eve of May Day to celebrate a Hexenacht or “magic night.” The Catholic Church decreed that Walpurgis Night would be practiced to counteract this evil, with bonfires being lit throughout the European countryside to fend off witches and evil spirits. Given how many “witches” were burned in Germany during this period, the idea of an entire holiday devoted to fighting witches with bonfires is rather ominous.

16 Macabre Cultural Festivals in History that Make Halloween Look Like Child’s Play
A carved Hop-tu-Naa turnip. Wikimedia.

9. Isle of Man – Hop-tu-Naa

Americans owe a debt of gratitude to the Manx people for their favorite jack-o’-lanterns, as the practice originated with the turnip lanterns of the Hop-tu-Naa festival. In Manx, New Year’s Eve is known as Oie Houiney, which is identical in pronunciation to the Irish Oíche Shamhna from which Samhain takes its name. The festival is thought to be the oldest uninterrupted cultural practice on the Isle of Man. The name Hop-tu-Naa comes from a Manx Gaelic song that was popular during the festival, as music and dancing are core components of the celebrations.

The turnip lanterns, with carvings varying regionally, are called moots by the Manx. Children would engage in a variety of trick-or-treating by carrying the lanterns around door-to-door. Before the carvings became popular, children reportedly bashed turnip stumps on doors of anyone who refused to give them a treat or a coin.

Music and dancing are indeed the highlights of the Manx festival. Famous traditional dance has been recorded by cultural archivists. Couples dance down the street holding their turnip lanterns and singing folk songs, including that from which the festival takes its name. Schools on the Isle of Man teach both the dance and the songs to preserve the cultural icons.

16 Macabre Cultural Festivals in History that Make Halloween Look Like Child’s Play
A drawing of the witch-like creature from the Festa della Befana. Verona Sera.

10. Italy – Festa della Befana

A much more frightening visitor than Santa Claus visits Italian children on the night before the Christian holiday of the Epiphany. Epiphany Eve, which is the night of January 5th, is marked by the delivery of gifts by Befana, a witch-like old woman. If children are good, Befana fills their hung stocking with candy and presents. If they are bad, she leaves a lump of coal. She also will sweep the home of good families, which symbolically represents the cleaning away of the last year’s troubles.

While this may seem like a mere Christmas tradition, Befana is depicted as riding a broom and has a stereotypically hag-like appearance with a black shawl, scary face and is often covered in soot from traveling down chimneys. She is referred to, in English, as the Christmas witch. The traditional flight of Befana was historically only celebrated in Rome, with the widespread practice in Italy only occurring in the 20th century.

In the legend, Befana was approached by the biblical Magi, known as the Three Wise Men, shortly before the birth of Jesus. She offered them room in her extremely well-kept home, but could not provide them with directions to the inn where Jesus would be born, as she did not know. Due to her hospitality and well-cared-for home, the magi offered to take her with to see Jesus. She initially declined but had a change of heart after they left. She was not able to find them and is believed to be ever searching for the baby Jesus.

16 Macabre Cultural Festivals in History that Make Halloween Look Like Child’s Play
An Obon bonfire. Wikimedia.

11. Japan – Obon

In Japan, the Buddhist festival of Obon is a holiday that lasts three days and honors the spirits of ancestors. The celebration has been practiced for over 500 years and includes many recognizable elements such as visiting and cleaning graves. It also is marked by performing a special and unique dance that is only done during the festival. The festival typically occurs between July and August. While not officially recognized as a government holiday in Japan, it is traditional to give people leave if requested.

The origin of the festival comes from a folk story in which a man approaches Buddha to ask for wisdom on how to save the spirit of his mother from hungry ghosts. Buddha advises him to make an offering to his monks, which the man practices and witnesses his mother’s release from the hungry ghosts. The man reportedly danced with joy at seeing his mother’s freedom, which gave rise to the traditional dance.

Since the festival occurs during the peak of Japan’s summer heat, traditional clothing includes lightweight yukatas and kimonos. Light summer foods such as watermelon are traditionally included as part of the festivities. Visiting cemeteries, caring for graves, carnivals, and fires are all part of the traditional rites. Fires open and close the ceremonies, as this is believed to guide the ancestral spirits.

16 Macabre Cultural Festivals in History that Make Halloween Look Like Child’s Play
A photograph of Halloween decorations. The Namibian.

12. Philippines – Pangangaluluwâ

The United States’ military occupation of and continuing presence in the Philippines has had a profound effect on the local customs, as did Spanish colonization. While the Philippines practiced Indigenous faiths that primarily focused on animism for centuries, all of which are referred to under the umbrella of Dayawism, such beliefs were eradicated mainly during the Spanish colonization of the 16th century and beyond. The Philippines is now over 90% Christian, and many modern American customs have been integrated into their faith through the last century of American military occupation and ongoing presence.

The tradition of Pangangaluluwâ was drawn from the English custom of souling. Children would travel the streets singing from door to door in exchange for treats. The most recognizable modern equivalent would be wassailing during the Christmas period for hot drinks. This tradition is in the process of dying out across the Philippines, with American-style trick or treating becoming more commonplace.

A unique custom in the Philippines is mischiefs being played on family members by removing a minor article of clothing or knick-knack and placing it in the yard or another strange location. The idea behind these tricks is to convince others that their deceased loved one has played a prank on them to remind them they are being watched over. Another quirk of the Philippines is the presence of Halloween and Christmas decor side by side. Christmas celebrations often begin in September in the Philippines, leading to riotous decorations from both holidays.

16 Macabre Cultural Festivals in History that Make Halloween Look Like Child’s Play
Children in traditional Gai Jatra attire. Wikimedia.

13. Nepal – Gai Jatra

Gai Jatra, meaning festival of cows in Nepali, is a festival celebrated by the Newar people in Nepal. The festival is a Hindu practice mainly followed in the Kathmandu region of Nepal. Different cities in Nepal have different variations on the celebrations, but all support the same core belief focusing around departed ancestors and the Hindi death deity Yamaraj.
In Kathmandu, Gai Jatra participants lead cows on a ceremonial procession throughout the city. For those who cannot afford or find a cow, a young man dressed as a cow is used. Cows are a highly venerated animal in Hinduism, and it is believed that ancestors will follow the cows and thus their passage to heaven will be eased by having a guide.

Other elements of the festival, which occurs during August, includes the families of the recently deceased going door to door and asking neighbors to join their procession. This ritual was believed to promote harmony and unity among neighbors. Feasts are also undertaken to acknowledge the end of the hardest labors of the year for farmers and fishers. In some cities, men dress as women, and everyone wears funny attire and perform a traditional dance known as Ghinta Gisi. The dance is performed as part of a procession of chariots bearing imagery of the dead.

16 Macabre Cultural Festivals in History that Make Halloween Look Like Child’s Play
A traditional feast for Chuseok. Culture Trip.

14. South Korea – Chuseok

The South Korean festival of Chuseok is a blend of elements that we would recognize as coming from Thanksgiving and Halloween celebrations. It is celebrated in the eighth month of the lunar calendar and signals the end of the harvest season. It is also a thanksgiving celebration, where Koreans return to their hometowns and pay respect to ancestors both living and dead.

Chuseok translates to “autumn eve” and begins on the 14th day of the eighth lunar month and ends on the 16th day of the same month. It typically falls around the autumnal equinox. The two major components of the festival are, in Korean, Charye, and Seongmyo. Charye is a memorial service held in one’s home to honor their ancestors. Seongmyo is a visit to the ancestral graves of one’s family.

Traditional foods also play a significant role in Chuseok with songpyeon, a traditional rice cake, being a staple food during the festival. Gifts are also exchanged during Chuseok, a tradition which started in the middle of the 20th century. The gift exchanges began with necessary daily items such as soap, coffee and other staples that were scarce during the economically troubled period. However, as South Korea’s economy has developed the gift giving has become more lavish.

16 Macabre Cultural Festivals in History that Make Halloween Look Like Child’s Play
Fête Ghede offerings and flowers. L’Union Suite.

15. Haiti – Fête Ghede

Fête Ghede, Fet Gede, or simply Ghede (pronounced GED-day) is a Vodou or voodoo, which is a holiday celebrated on All Saint’s Day in Haiti. In the Creole French of Haiti, Fet Gede means festival of the sacred dead. While it is celebrated in the numerous Christian churches through Haiti, it is mostly a festival of Indigenous African traditions that were brought to Haiti with the slave trade.

Fet Gede is a celebration of the lwa or loa of death. Loa are the spirits or deities in the Vodou tradition. Chief among the loa celebrated during Fet Gede are Papa Gede, believed to be the first man who ever died and guardian of the crossroads between life and death, and Baron Samedi, god of the dead.

Celebrations include pilgrimages to the believed grade of Papa Gede, visiting cemeteries to honor the dead, and creating altars with gifts to the ancestors. Drumming, dancing, laughing and singing with such volume as to raise the dead is another part of the celebration, which is aided by the liberal use of alcohol. The loa hold a great deal of respect from the people of Haiti, as their spirits are believed to have helped in the successful slave rebellion that saw the end of slavery in Haiti.

16 Macabre Cultural Festivals in History that Make Halloween Look Like Child’s Play
A Hungry Ghost Festival bonfire. TripSavvy/Getty.

16. China – The Hungry Ghost Festival

The Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated throughout China and Hong Kong for an entire month, starting from the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. The festival is typically celebrated through mid-to-late August and early September. The first day of the celebration is known as Ghost Day, while the entire seventh month of the lunar calendar is known as Ghost Month. During the festival, the living is expected to pay respect to the dead, and the dead are believed to visit those still living.

Ritual activities during the festival include offerings of food, burning incense and burning joss paper, a traditional Chinese paper meant for offerings. Other traditions involve burning paper mache representations of everyday items as well as buying and releasing paper boats or lanterns. The release of lanterns containing flames is believed to guide the souls of the ancestors to the afterlife.

Large, complicated vegetarian meals are traditional during the festival, with portions left aside for the consumption of ancestral spirits visiting the family. The burning of both the joss paper and the representation of everyday items is believed to send those items to the souls in the afterlife in a form that is useful to them. Both Buddhists and Taoists celebrate the festival.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“13 photos of Halloween celebrations around the world” Edith Hancock, Business Insider. October 2016.

“Beyond Halloween: 9 Macabre Festivals Around the World” Cynthia Drescher, Condé Nast Traveler. October 2015.

“Why Des Moines has Beggars’ Night” Kelsey Batschelet, Des Moines Register. October 2015.

“10 Things We Learned about Fet Gede “Haitian Day of The Dead”‘ L’Union Suite Staff. October 2017.

“12 Halloween Traditions From Around the World” Rudie Obias, Mental Floss. October 2017.

“La Befana: The Christmas Witch Italian Children Love” Grand Voyage Italy Staff. December 2016.

Chuseok: Korean Thanksgiving Day. Asia Society staff. n.d.

“The Story of the Gai Jatra Festival” Inside Nepal staff. April 2018.